Sometimes the trickiest part of collaboration is knowing where to begin. For those of us who are doers, it’s the substance of the collaboration and defining what we want to achieve together that comes first. Collaborators who are relational begin by assembling a core group of people they want to work with and together they determine the specifics of the collaboration. While both of these approaches have their merits, how often do we begin a collaboration not by asking who or what, but why? 

As a collaboration participant and facilitator I’ve found that when the purpose is not explored early on or if insufficient attention is given to making sure that it is clearly articulated, mutually understood, and collectively owned that this has the potential to derail a network or movement.  As difficult as it may be to take the time to explore why we want to collaborate with each other, sometimes the real challenge is resisting the temptation to go straight into action and ask the fundamental questions that aren’t being addressed. The questions we ask at the start of a collaboration can help or hinder our efforts to advance social progress.

Ask why is it important for us to collaborate instead of what could we do?

Members of a socially responsible business association that I joined met informally to discuss the possibility of collaborating. While some good ideas were mentioned about what this could look like, months later this remains a good intention that has yet to be followed through. Before developing a consulting practice that helps changemakers collaborate more effectively, I experienced meetings that generated little more than good feelings because no one stepped up to take the ideas that were discussed forward. Although I was unable to attend this particular meeting I’ve had conversations with the organizers about the possibility of re-engaging participants in a process that can begin to generate the commitment needed to move forward.  

Instead of beginning the conversation with what could we do together, another approach is to begin by asking why should we collaborate? The former question leads to responses about activities, which may be premature for those who are not sure if they want to collaborate. The latter question may be more suitable for helping potential collaborators decide whether the effort of working together is worth the reward for achieving their individual goals. Where the “what” question creates an assumption that we already want to collaborate, the “why” question leaves the door open for people to opt in or opt out. If participants decide to opt in a “why” question can build commitment for collaboration that facilitates an exploration of other questions, such as: Who do we want to work with? What could we do together?

Ask why are others missing from this conversation instead of how will we move forward?

I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of asking the right questions at the right time while working with a client who was eager to launch a movement with a bold vision for improving community members’ quality of life. Instead of making sure that others who expressed interest in participating in this movement were fully on board, I accepted the assurances that my client made about collective readiness to transition from talk to action without examining the extent to which there was a shared understanding of this situation. The result was that I participated in designing a meeting that attendees were unprepared to participate in. Fortunately, as the meeting unfolded, my co-facilitator quickly recognized that a different conversation was needed and made the space for it to happen in collaboration with the client. This change met the participants where they were in that moment and enabled them to explore questions that they had not yet answered about what the movement was really about and who else should be participating in this conversation.

This experienced helped me realize that collaboration has its own rhythm where the pace is determined not by the client’s timetable, but by the speed at which relationships are formed, collective understanding is developed, and trust is built. Even in cases where there is a collective readiness to proceed with building a network or movement, changes, such as the addition of new members or policies that impact the issue being addressed, can signal the need to revisit the purpose for collaborating.  

Ask why are we working together instead of what will we do next?

I joined the leadership committee for a group that raises awareness about responsible business and encourages others to join this movement. While members of the leadership committee recognize the importance of clearly defining our purpose, the scope of our work, and how we will work together, having this conversation has taken a backseat to responding to opportunities that have emerged for increasing visibility and community engagement.

On the one hand organizing community events on an ad hoc basis offers the flexibility of selectively pursuing opportunities based on interest and availability of resources. Organizing events has also provided an opportunity for us to get to know each other and form relationships based on mutual respect and trust. At the same time, it is unclear whether the committee will fulfill its purpose if attention continues to focus on event planning without also taking the time to explore whether this approach is leading to the results it wants to achieve.

Each of these examples illustrate the different kinds of challenges that can emerge when the propensity for action takes precedence over developing a clearly defined purpose or when the purpose for collaborating is not mutually understood or collectively owned. The lesson that has emerged from these experiences is that while "doing" can generate results, particularly in the shorter-term, there is just as much or perhaps even greater value from "being." When we collaborate we have a responsibility to be purposeful. This means having the courage to be honest with ourselves about why we are collaborating and whether our expectations are being met as well as speaking up if this is not the case. It also means having the courage to initiate the conversations that aren't taking place about the "why" behind what we're doing and who we're working with.

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on April 25, 2016.